The 57 acres that comprise Cedar Ridge Farm are located in the beautiful rolling hills of South Central Kentucky. My wife, our four children, and I are on a homesteading adventure as we work toward increased self-sufficiency. We grow much of our own food and enjoy being in touch with the agrarian roots of our lives.

One of the major projects we have undertaken is the building of our own home. The house we're building has three major distinguishing features: 1. we're building it without incurring any debt; 2. it is a timber frame structure; and 3. the exterior walls will be plastered straw bales. We live debt and mortgage free, and building our house with that approach makes perfect sense. Large timbers in a home possess a beauty and project a sense of strength, stability, and warmth that we want in our home. Straw bale walls provide insulation and make ecological sense. This blog is a record of our home-building project.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The block-work continues

    It’s been hot and humid the last few days. Yesterday’s temperature was somewhere around 93 degrees, or so I was told. I don’t have a thermometer with which to measure the temperature. I do know that it was hot while I worked – I was drenched with sweat. But, that’s to be expected, and it’s not a problem.

Yesterday morning, I finished mortaring the rest of the blocks for first course of the crawlspace wall. south wall from east endThere was about 80% of the back wall to be completed, and it went pretty well.

After finishing the mortaring, I started laying blocks on the front. After about 50 blocks, it was lunch time and time for a dry shirt. After lunch, I continued laying block along the front of the house. It wasn’t long until my shirt was soaked again. I hauled six blocks at a time in the wheel barrow to the corner of the house and set those before getting another load. Meanwhile, my boys hauled two blocks at a time (working together) to stack them on the east side of the house. That way they’ll be ready when I start laying the blocks on that side and the back of the house.

south wall from west endAbout ten feet from the west end of the front wall, I set an access door in the wall. I bought a 32” x 32” door on Friday. These doors are designed to be installed in a mortared wall in which the heights and widths are figured in multiples of eight inches. When dry stacking concrete blocks, you aren’t working with multiples of eight. The blocks are 7-5/8” tall and 15-5/8” long. So, my 32” x 32” door wouldn’t fit perfectly in a two block wide by four block high space.

access doorIt wasn’t a problem though. Because I am laying the blocks on each of the four levels independent of the other levels, it wasn’t a problem to bring the front wall from the east side to the door and then start the next section from the door to the west end. Height wise I wasn’t concerned, because I planned on using the sill for the top of it.

I mortared two four inch high solid concrete blocks onto the first course of blocks where I wanted to put the access door. Using a masonry blade in my circular saw, I cut into the ends of two blocks for the bottom plate of the door frame. It’s made to be mortared between courses which wasn’t going to work for me anyway. Once I set it up four inches on the solid blocks, it also put the bottom plate in the middle of the next course of blocks. It fits nicely in the cuts on the blocks, and they help hold it securely.

The top of the door frame is two inches below the top of the block wall. Once I place the sill on top of the wall, I’ll attach a two inch piece to it above the frame. I’ll also come back and caulk the seams around the frame from the inside to make it tight and secure. I don’t want air gaps around it.

The wall along the front came out acceptably well. It looks good with it there. It’s really nice to see progress on the house, but it sure is a lot of work. I’ve got to get the other walls blocked and then coat all of them. I’ll probably soak a few more shirts before I’m done.

House with front crawlspace wall

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Blocking in the crawl space

We’ve had plenty of rain so far this year. The garden has not suffered from dryness. In between rain showers and storms and all the other work there is to be done around here, I have continued to work on the house. I laid out blocks on the footer last week, figuring where the crawlspace walls need to be in relation the house frame.

011Earlier this week, after some rain and before some other rain, I started mortaring the first course of blocks on the west side of the house for the wall that will be under the mudroom. The first step in the process was to remove some of the accumulated mud that had been deposited around the blocks by the rain. Then, I lifted out the block that was to be mortared into place, and placed some mortar where the block had been.

012After distributing the mortar where the bottom edge of the block would set on it, I placed the block back into position. The main purpose for the mortar is to get the first course of blocks level. So, after placing the block on the mortar, I used a piece of wood to get it into place and then checked its placement with a level. I endeavored to make sure that each block was level side-to-side and along the line with the other blocks.


It takes a while to mortar the first course of blocks into place. I was able to complete the ones on the level that will be beneath the mudroom.  It then rained off and on during the next couple of days, and I managed to work on some other things that needed done.


I was able to return to the project yesterday afternoon after spending the morning working on my class (I teach a class online for a university). I started by mortaring the blocks along the next level of the footer on the west side of the house. This is a shorter run than the previous level, and it went fairly quickly.

After getting these blocks mortared into level, I began laying blocks. One thing about dry stack concrete block construction is that the block-laying goes quickly. I had to haul the blocks from where I had the block company put them a few weeks ago which is maybe 20 yards away and down hill from the house. I moved six at a time using a wheel barrow. That seemed to work better than using a hand truck.

I began laying blocks for the walls under the mudroom since that mortar was fully set up and cured. After completing laying those, I went ahead and laid the ones on the section I had just mortared. I figured that the mortar wasn’t going to settle or move with the weight of the blocks anyway.

Because of the way I designed and poured the footer, there are four levels for the blocks around the house. I did not worry about making the steps for each level perfect with the other levels so that the blocks could 026be laid seamlessly all the way around the house. Each level can be constructed as a separate wall. Any gaps that may exist between levels will be filled with concrete. Then, the whole thing will be coated with surface bonding cement. I will cut cedars for the sill on top of the wall, so any variation in height will be accounted for in the dimensions to which I cut them. This simplified the figuring and block laying for me.

I saw a block wall a couple days ago for which the footer appeared to have been poured on an angle matching the slope of the house site. The blocks appeared to have been cut along the bottom so that the top would be level. I didn’t want to do that much cutting. I think my method will work all right.

025In anticipation of plumbing that I’ll do later, I cut a hole in one block before laying it. This hole will allow me to run the sewer pipe to the septic tank through the wall. I am not completely sure where the septic tank will go at this point. So, I’ll cut another hole on the opposite side of the house, too, just in case I need to place it on that side. I knew I didn’t want to cut a hole later.

022As can be seen in the photo to the left, I didn’t lay out the end wall on the cellar exactly right. It doesn’t line up straight with the crawlspace wall I just laid. I can’t change it, of course, and it really won’t create much problem. I expect that it won’t be very noticeable later anyway.

A thunder storm rolled through just after I started writing this post. I was planning on working on the front crawlspace wall this afternoon. It may be too muddy now. I’ll see in a little while.


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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Perimeter footer

With enough rain-free weather, I was able to complete the forms for the perimeter footer on Tuesday of last week. There are four levels for the footer because of the slope of the house site. I didn’t want to excavate the trench for the footer the same depth all the way around the house.

footerOn Wednesday morning, I called the local ready mix concrete company to order four yards of concrete. They were able to bring it out right away. It didn’t take long to pour the concrete. Dad and I screeded it which also didn’t take long. The footer is 14 inches wide, 8 inches thick, and has two 5/8” rebar pieces in the middle.

About an hour after we finished, a small rain storm came through. It didn’t dump much rain, but what rain that did fall fell hard. The concrete hadn’t had enough time to set up hard enough not to be affected by the rain. exposed aggregate because of rainThe main effect was that some of the cement and sand on the surface was washed away, leaving the courser aggregate exposed and loose on top. This occurred most dramatically to the footer at the front of the house because the runoff from the roof on that side hit directly on the outside quarter of the footer. You can see in the photo to the right the effect it had. It won’t really matter, though. The first course of blocks will be set onto the footer with mortar, and, once the walls are finished, the footer will be covered with dirt, never to be seen again.


I will begin laying the blocks this week as time allows. There are a lot of other jobs to be done around our homestead and we’ll be having some visitors for part of the week and next weekend (one of Anne’s sisters and her family).

Looking ahead to the order of construction, once the blocks are laid, it will be time to start framing the porch. I’ll have to pour footers for under the porch posts, lay blocks for the piers, and frame the porch deck. At that point I will put down the first floor subfloor, including under where the straw bales will go. I will need to lay down some porch floor boards, whether or not I complete that floor now or later, also. Then, there’s more to be done so that the porch roof can be put on. And, there’s a whole lot more work after that. I’ll keep plugging away, and it’ll get done.